- I don't know. The power of this simple statement increases with your level of expertise, yet it works for all speakers. Refusing to go beyond what you know shows good sense, and helps you avoid a multitude of problems later. But it also exudes confidence. Other ways to say "I don't know" gracefully: "I wish I knew that, but I don't," or, with a big smile, "If I had the answer to that fine question, I'd be a millionaire," or, "Who can really say? That's always been a mystery to me," with a shrug and a smile. But only if that's true for you. Not answering a question? Work a rhetorical question into your remarks, and answer your own question with an "I don't know"--a strong way to underscore uncertainty on an issue, or establish your own place in the discussion, with power.
- I disagree. Many speakers, aiming to please the audience, feel they must agree with what audience members say. But confusing agreement with acknowledgment, or with your credibility, means your speech can and will go wrong. Disagree with calm, respect and even good humor, but if you disagree with a questioner's point, do it. It's fine to say, "I see your point, but I disagree," or simply, "I disagree. In my experience..." or "research shows definitively that..." Sometimes, disagreeing may be more subtle. If an audience member's question presumes something about you ("It sounds like you've always wanted to be a politician..."), be sure to refute the assumption ("My real goal, growing up, was to be a scientist").
- I agree. When you can genuinely--not every time--agree with an audience member's point, it's a powerful way to establish or reinforce your connection with the group. Be sure, as the speaker, to share some perspective of your own on why you agree. And play around with some graceful ways to say you agree: "Ain't it the truth?" "I'm just sayin'," or "I'm with you there" are all fun ways to cement the agreement connection.
- I'm surprised. Again, only if it's genuine. But if you're surprised by the question, sharing that reaction automatically pricks up the audience's ears. Then be sure to explain yourself.
- I'm sorry. Too often forgotten by erring politicians, this simple phrase can take the tension out of an exchange faster than anything else. If you've erred, be quick with your sorry statement, and then you can move forward with your remarks. Without it, you may never recover.
- I'd like to hear what you have to say. The speaker's power in large part derives from control of the microphone, the room, the stage. When you open it up to the audience and share that power, you demonstrate your confidence and show your willingness to hazard the unexpected--making you even more powerful.
It's not a mistake that all these phrases start with "I...," the most powerful statement any individual can make, according to psychologists--and also, the most genuine. You can't speak for anyone else, and no one else can speak for you, so start with "I" and see where that gets you.